Bibi and Barak: The Future of Their Relationship

News Analysis

By Ron Kampeas (JTA)

Published May 19, 2009.
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With a presidential pledge to hang tough on Iran under his belt, Benjamin Netanyahu could be forgiven for thinking Barack Obama was an easy first date.

Wait until he hears about what happens when the relationship gets serious.

The Israeli prime minister walked away from his first leader’s summit with the U.S. president with a tangible prize: a commitment to a timetable on Obama’s bid to use diplomacy to persuade Iran to end its nuclear weapons program.

“The important thing is to make sure that there is a clear timetable of – at which point we say these talks don’t seem to be making any serious progress,” Obama said after the 2 1/2-hour meeting Monday, an hour longer than expected. “By the end of the year I think we should have some sense as to whether or not these discussions are starting to yield significant benefits, whether we’re starting to see serious movement on the part of the Iranians.

“If that hasn’t taken place, then I think the international community will see that it’s not the United States or Israel or other countries that are seeking to isolate or victimize Iran.”

In return Obama received, in effect, nothing from Netanyahu: No stated commitment to Palestinian statehood, no pledge to freeze settlements.

No wonder, then, that Netanyahu was as eager as a prom date to lavish the love.

“You’re a great leader – a great leader of the United States, a great leader of the world, a great friend of Israel, and someone who is acutely cognizant of our security concerns,” Netanyahu said, leaning toward Obama during an Oval Office photo opportunity. “And the entire people of Israel appreciate it, and I speak on their behalf.”

The “entire people of Israel” might be overstating it, but with Obama’s commitment on Iran, Netanyahu swept aside concerns that he would repeat the disastrous opening months in 1996 of his first prime ministership, when he alienated then-President Bill Clinton by dismissing the Oslo peace process. Israeli voters cherish the U.S. alliance above all else, and that fiasco helped doom Netanyahu’s chances for re-election in 1999.

Yet between the lines and in his emphases, Obama made it clear throughout the news conference that this was no one summit stand: He expects tangible commitments from Israel further down the road.

“Israel is going to have to take some difficult steps as well, and I shared with the prime minister the fact that under the ‘road map’ and under Annapolis that there’s a clear understanding that we have to make progress on settlements,” Obama said, referring to the most recent peace process agreements. “Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward. That’s a difficult issue. I recognize that, but it’s an important one and it has to be addressed.”

Obama also called on Israel to ease humanitarian access to the Gaza Strip in the wake of the devastation caused by the war between Israel and Hamas in January.

“The fact is, is that if the people of Gaza have no hope, if they can’t even get clean water at this point, if the border closures are so tight that it is impossible for reconstruction and humanitarian efforts to take place, then that is not going to be a recipe for Israel’s long-term security or a constructive peace track to move forward,” Obama said.

And Obama stressed the two-state solution, the phrase that has yet to escape Netanyahu’s lips since assuming office in early April.

It was clear as well that Obama wants action soon. Insiders have said that George Mitchell, Obama’s chief envoy to the region – who also attended Monday’s meeting – expects a final-status deal within two years. Obama is blitzing Middle East heads of state, meeting this month with the leaders of Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, and readying an address to the Muslim world to be delivered next month in Egypt.

Netanyahu appeared unmoved. Statehood, he said, was a matter of “terminology,” and he was silent on settlements.

Senior Israeli officials said afterward that they would look for signs of Palestinian reciprocity on security issues before dismantling even those settlement outposts considered illegal under Israel’s laws. They did not define what constituted “reciprocity.”

Senior U.S. officials, including James Jones, the national security adviser who joined Obama in the meeting, believe that Palestinian Authority security forces trained by a U.S.-led team have made strides in placating the West Bank.

The Israeli officials also said it was too early to remove roadblocks to ease Palestinian day-to-day living, although that also has been an oft-repeated Obama administration request.

There were signs of tension on the Israel-Palestinian issue. When Obama pressed Netanyahu on the statehood issue, the Israeli prime minister told the president that Israel was committed to prior agreements – including those that envision statehood – but that he thought it wiser to look forward to a new process.

Both leaders strenuously denied that either side was pressing linkage, contrary to recent reports that Israel wants to see substance on Iran before moving forward with the Palestinians and that Obama wants to see results on the Palestinian front as a means of advancing international unity on the Iran issue.

Still, Obama said that if there were linkage, he saw its sequence as Palestinians first, then Iran.

“If there is a linkage between Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, I personally believe it actually runs the other way,” he said, replying to an Israeli reporter’s question about reports that Netanyahu wants to see evidence of an effort to isolate Iran before making bold peace moves. “To the extent that we can make peace with the Palestinians – between the Palestinians and the Israelis – then I actually think it strengthens our hand in the international community in dealing with a potential Iranian threat.”

Overall, however, the Israeli team reveled in its two “gets”: Obama’s commitment to review the policy of outreach to Iran by the end of this year – close to zero hour, in Israeli assessments of when Iran might go nuclear – and his commitment to extract from moderate Arab nations a commitment to active participation in the peace process beyond lip service.

Not only did Obama outline an Iran timetable, the president said he was ”not foreclosing a range of steps, including much stronger international sanctions, in assuring that Iran understands that we are serious.”

Mention “options” or “steps” in a sentence about Iran and the Israelis understand it to mean that the United States is keeping a military option open. Netanyahu made it clear that was his interpretation.

“I very much appreciate, Mr. President, your firm commitment to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear military capability, and also your statement that you’re leaving all options on the table,” he said.

Israeli officials later suggested they also perceived the threat of military action behind Obama’s twice-repeated warning that Iran’s entry into the nuclear weapons club was “extraordinarily dangerous for all concerned, including for Iran.”


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